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Janet Overton, 46, a devoted mom and school board leader, had plans to go whale watching with her teenage son, Eric, on January 24, 1988. It was a picture-perfect day for the outing.
But suddenly everything went tragically wrong. Janet collapsed in the driveway of her home in Dana Point, California. Eric and his father, Richard Overton, called 911. The two followed the ambulance to the hospital, where Janet was pronounced dead.
“When the coroner’s office conducted the autopsy on Janet Overton the result was inconclusive. They did not have a cause of death,” former TV reporter Tricia Takasugi told “The Real Murders of Orange County,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
The mystery surrounding the sudden death compelled investigators to look closer into Janet’s demise. They scrutinized medical records and health history and spoke with friends and family, said Gene Endsley, a retired investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
While answers didn’t immediately emerge, one of Janet’s friends told detectives that she felt “pretty crummy” and had complained of inexplicable sores.
As investigators dove into Janet’s unexplained illness they also looked into her role as a school board member to see if she had made any enemies. They found that Janet’s progressive ideas sometimes led to clashes with conservative members of the community.
Detectives also learned about rumors of a smear campaign about Janet’s involvement in an extramarital affair. “There was a note put on all of the cars in the parking lot at the district office saying that,” said Debra Jackson, District Attorney, Orange County.
Investigators observed that Janet’s deteriorating health coincided with the rumor about the affair with a school official. The other man was revealed as Bill Dawson, a married assistant superintendent. And in a shocking twist, Janet had soon learned that her husband was behind the flyers distributed to tarnish her reputation, a friend told producers.
Then, six months after Janet's death, an unexpected call from Richard’s ex-wife, Dorothy Bayer, which shed shocking light on his marital history.
In the early 1970s, Boyer developed strange and sudden illnesses after asking for a divorce. It was determined that Boyer’s beauty products and coffee had been laced with selenium, which can be fatal in large doses. Dorothy confronted Richard with her discovery, but didn’t push for prosecution.
When detectives realized Richard had knowledge about poisoning someone, they followed that lead. Paul Sedgwick, retired coroner’s toxicologist for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, examined Janet’s stomach contents for evidence of foul play and it essentially hit him in the face.
“I smelled cyanide instantly,” he told producers. “Cyanide simply should not be in a person’s body in concentrations strong enough to detect by odor.”
Investigators had learned that Richard, who taught at various colleges and worked in the defense industry, had a partner that was involved in gold mining and had access to the cyanide and other metallurgy material, said Endsley.
When he was questioned by the lead investigator in the case, Richard maintained that he had a happy, loving marriage and that he had no way to obtain cyanide. He abruptly stopped the interview when detectives pushed him for the truth.
Their son, Eric Overton, eventually told detectives that he was concerned that his parents were on the verge of divorce and admitted it was a possibility his father could have killed his mother, according to “Real Murders of Orange County.”
Detectives obtained a search warrant for Richard’s house to look for cyanide, selenium, and other toxins and evidence. They collected articles found about selenium, vitamins, medications, open coffee cans, and Janet’s makeup. They also collected Richard’s written journals and ones on his computer that had been deleted and retrieved.
In journal passages, Richard wrote about his wife in ways that contradicted what he’d told detectives about his blissful marriage. In them he “meticulously recorded his wife’s activities, including alleged affairs,” reported the Los Angeles Times. His journals contained references to Janet’s “seduction gear” — including condoms and vibrators.
Lab analysis of Janet’s cosmetics revealed Richard’s sinister method for poisoning her. He spiked her mascara with selenium. Over time, tiny doses of selenium, brushed on daily and absorbed by the skin, took a cumulative effect. Cyanide, “possibly slipped into her coffee the day she died,” reported the Associated Press, was more fast-acting.
On October 1, 1991, Richard Overton was arrested for Janet’s murder. The trial began eight months later. During the proceedings Richard allegedly suffered a heart attack and a mistrial was declared. At the second trial, Richard Overton was convicted of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2009, Richard Overton, 81, died while serving time at Folsom State Prison. The cause of death was advanced dementia and complications of diabetes. He continued to maintain his innocence while behind bars.
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